S&H Concert Review

TAVENER in Pentonville HMP Pentonville, Monday October 2, 2000, 7.45pm

Stravinsky Three Pieces for Solo Clarinet

Stravinsky Three Songs from William Shakespeare

Tavener The Lord's Prayer

Tavener My Gaze is ever upon You

Stravinsky Double Canon

Tavener In One Single Moment

Soloists of the London Sinfonietta
Terry Edwards, conductor
Chorus of prisoners

Last Monday's concert was a rare, if not unique, event. A world première sung inside Pentonville Prison by a 23-strong chorus of inmates. John Tavener, the composer, was present at the performance, in which his musicwas interspersed with works by Stravinsky. The irony and dissonance of the Russian composer's music contrasted tellingly with the contemplativesimplicity of the Tavener works.

The clarinettist Mark van de Wiel opened the evening with a virtuoso account of Stravinsky's Three Pieces for Solo Clarinet (1919), displaying a  mastery of pianissimo playing in the first, followed by a lively portrayal of a flock of birds with cat, with melodic shades of the Rite of Spring in the second , and a moto perpetuo finale. Mezzo Mary King gave a commanding, if not vocally beautiful, performance of Stravinsky's Three Songs from William Shakespeare,a serial work involving much dead-pan declamation of three rather unsettling sonnets, including Full fathom five.

Tavener's The Lord's Prayer called for male chorus. Only two minutes long, this simple but direct piece based on rhythmic chanting, sung in unison, received a rough and ready performance from the inmates' chorus - who had formed specifically for the concert; but, as Tavener remarked, they sang straight from the heart.

The second Tavener work, My Gaze is ever upon You (1998), is 'a series of 16 gazes, movements and ecstatic breaths written in Trinitarian guise', and represents his perception of God in everyday things. Violinist Clio Gould, the work's dedicatee, was accompanied by Joan Atherton (Violin) and Enno Senft (double-bass) in violinistic twidlings around the harmonic minor scale over a continuous drone which seemed very self-consciously Taveneresque. They rather overstayed their welcome. Stravinsky's Double Canon for string quartet followed immediately from the back of the chapel. This troubled, restless work made a striking contrast to the grounded, meditative quality of the 'gazes'.

The première of Tavener's In One Single Moment was commissioned for the prison chorus, plus string quartet (and gong), used antiphonally. The work sets Orthodox liturgy based on the cry of the 'good thief' at the Crucifixion ('Remember me, O Lord'); the music uses a Russian melody (Lisitsyn) and comprises alternating chorale-like passages from both chorus and quartet. Although the strongly tonal harmonies bordered on the atonal on the lips of the motley chorus, the singers gave the words everything they had, to extraordinarily powerful effect - after all, even if they weren't note perfect, many will have connected with this impassioned prayer of repentance. The audience was certainly moved to give a standing ovation, in response to which the men sang a foot-stomping African-style encore. In a comic twist, we had to wait while 'the guests of Her Majesty' were escorted back to their cells - another reminder that this wasn't a conventional concert but an educational project. To my mind, and given the palpable engagement of many of the chorus with both music and words, this concert was a tremendous success.

Sarah Dunlop

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